Heat

by Stephanie on February 1, 2011

The summer I finished my Honours degree, I worked five days a week and drank six. I remember very little of my day job from back then; in my memory I slept until midday and washed my hangovers off in the shower with the previous night’s conquest. I spent the afternoon jacking myself up on coffee before the first glass of wine at about 5pm as the edge of the January sun was finally blunted by the shadows of skyscrapers. I ate up inner-city evenings like some kind of malnourished socialite.

I didn’t write a word that summer, although not for lack of trying. The pen reluctantly coughed out scribbles and circles—confused, contorted images that represented nothing. I started to wonder if I was suffering from some kind of aphasic paralysis. I drank more to forget about it because when I wasn’t drinking the bad dreams started—violent, jolt-awake nightmares. There were a few of us who seemed to be suffering from similar diseases, and we sought each other out as the sun went down—a text message here, an open chat window there—loosely throwing together rendezvous in half-acknowledged comfort of the fact that we weren’t alone in stoking our coping mechanisms with cigarette smoke and artificial lights. We bought expensive food and pretended we could afford it, eating one meal a day and making up for lost calories with tequila and beer. We read the the news constantly and listened to technicolour trash-pop. We had neon-candy cravings, the bar bug.

Sam was one of my fellow sufferers, one of the few girls I knew at the time whose plans preferenced art over children, sex over commitment, immediacy over responsibility. A leftover from another life. An ex-girlfriend of an ex-friend. She was a hipster when hipsters weren’t quite a thing yet—80s knits and mismatched jewellery, heavy boots and bleached yellow hair. Nothing she did should have worked, at least if you believed in such things—she wasn’t skinny and she wasn’t pretty, not in the way the billboards or magazines wanted—but cool seemed to seep out of her skin, dewy and demure. I remember she cut half her hair off one day—clipped one side of her head into an impromptu pixie cut, while the other side curled over her ear and around her chin. I was fascinated by how that cut changed her face—at every angle she seemed to become a different person. People stared at her—I stared at her. Strangers approached her in the street, just for small talk.

One of those sticky, swollen afternoons was finally fading as we sat at an Italian restaurant in Hardware Lane eating some kind of flippant greenery, plump shrimps, crunchy calamari and buttery pieces of avocado, downing a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc between us instead of water. I tried to convince her to give her phone number to the bartender—I’m not entirely sure why. We made drama to have something to occupy us, like kids playing Truth or Dare, forcing revelations and risk for the sake of momentum. Start a scene, keep busy. Anything to stay distracted. I devised a flirtatious strategy for Sam and the bartender that allowed for minimum embarrassment and maximum potential. Sam listened intently and then said, ‘You just want me to do it because you don’t have the guts.’

I laughed. ‘Maybe. But you’re the one who thinks he’s cute. If I thought he was cute I’d do it.’

‘Fine. Next bar we go to, you’re doing it.’

‘Only if I find someone cute.’

‘Well, don’t make tonight your picky night, okay?’

We finished our dinner and made our way through the city, two drinks per bar, and Sam pointed to people and said ‘What about him? What about her?’ as though the only thing standing between me and an erotic interlude was the ability to make a decision. Open the list, choose your poison. But nobody caught my fancy. By the third bar, Sam was getting fed up with me, and when I shook my head at what must have been the hundredth person she accused me of being pretentious. ‘Your standards are way, way too high,’ she said. ‘You need to get over yourself.’

I couldn’t figure out why it stung so much. Perhaps it was the aimlessness of that summer, the irony of those in between days, thinking I was all that while having nothing, making nothing, achieving nothing. When I got home that night—alone—I was still thinking about it. I tried to sleep but my skin was prickling, my scalp was itching and in my half-doze I imagined there were fruit flies crawling all over me. I was fermenting on the inside and they were coming to feed.

Eventually I moved house and started working on my PhD. Sam and I drifted apart. When I lost my phone last January, hers was one of the numbers that, for one reason or another, I never got around to retrieving. Then about a week ago, I got a text message. I was driving home from camping, drenched in sweat under a filthy-hot sun, and expecting communication from someone else. Instead it read: ‘Are you in Melbourne? I miss our times together. Hope you’re doing SHIT HOT. xox Sam’. And as the waves of heat rolled in alongside this week’s hangovers, I started remembering her again, thinking about that year, how I felt like I was turning inside out—some kind of bullshit nihilistic self-immolation—and how I spent the entire time running headlong into the very things I was trying to escape.

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